American: The Bill Hicks Story
d. Matt Harlock & Paul Thomas / 2009 / UK / 102 min
Viewed at: Downstairs @ the Prince Charles Cinema (London, UK)
Part of the selling point for this documentary was the way that photographs were re-animated, supposedly to bring the story – as told by Bill Hicks’ nearest and dearest – to vivid life. In essence, it was also a way to paper over the fact that, aside from a few glimpses of Super-8mm home movies shot by Hicks’ father, there was understandably little footage of Hicks until he started performing stand-up comedy as a teenager in the late 1970s.
And although the animated photographs occasionally produced quite a neat effect, they can also be painfully annoying and cliched, only really becoming tolerable at the point in Hicks’ life where there was not only a lot more footage available, but a point at which his act had changed to the degree that longer clips simply became a necessary means to portraying his singularly intense on-stage demeanour.
Furthermore, it might seem an unfair distinction, but American really struggles to be much more than a glorified TV doc. Despite a desire to provide more than just a bunch of talking-heads sharing their side of the Bill Hicks story, that is precisely what the audience is given. Admittedly, these talking-heads are often more like ‘floating-voices’ – their anecdotes illustrated by the re-animated photographs – but there is, in effect, very little to differentiate this tactic from television’s pernicious tendency towards recreation.
All in all, though, this is a solid documentary about a brilliant, intriguing, troubled man. It delivers its material in an interesting manner, but it’s hard to know whether this is a virtue owing to the filmmakers or to Hicks as a subject. It’s probably not a great reflection on the overall quality of the film, but when Hicks launches into one of his infamous extended tirades, a large part of you wishes they’d just stick with him and leave all the other stuff to one side. Then again, perhaps that is simply further evidence of Hicks’ own brilliance, a brilliance to which no amount of documentary explanation can ever do justice.
Perhaps most worrying is that, aside from some fairly inconsequential tidbits about his early life, those with just a passing knowledge of Hicks will not find that knowledge particularly improved in any way, and there is nothing here that feels especially revelatory. And for a documentary (or any film for that matter) striving to rise above a cacophony of voices, it’s hard not to see that as some sort of failure.